By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Monday, June 14, 2010
The death of two kindergartners, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Qatar, has upset the huge Indian diaspora in the Gulf. In both cases, the little ones were left locked inside their minibuses in the blazing sun. The Gulf states are currently experiencing extremely harsh weather with temperatures shooting up to 50 degrees Celsius every other day.
The two separate but similar tragedies, occurring in a space of three weeks, have resulted in an outpouring of grief from the entire community. Such is the fear and trepidation among Indian expatriates that some parents have stopped their little ones from going to school altogether.
In the first case on May 17, four-and-a-half-year-old Sarah Mohammad Gazdhar, a KG-1 student of DPS-MIS (Delhi Public School - Modern Indian School) in the Qatari capital Doha, died because of heat and asphyxiation after she failed to disembark from the minibus when it reached her school. She was left in the vehicle for more than four hours under the baking sun. Sarah, whose family is from Jodhpur, had enrolled in the school only in April.
According to reports in the Qatari newspapers, Sarah had boarded the bus belonging to a transport company from her house in the Wakrah district of Doha. Unfortunately, a teacher, who frequently traveled on the same bus and who used to help her get off the bus, was absent on that fateful Monday.
After dropping the children, the driver took the minibus back to his accommodation, without realizing that the girl had not disembarked at the school. Usually, the child returned home in another bus which takes nursery and kindergarten children back from the school around 12 noon. The bus which she takes to reach the school in the morning returns to the school around 2 p.m. to take children of Classes I to XII back home.
When the child did not return home at noon, Sarah’s panic-stricken mother rang up the school, only to be told that she had not come to the school. When the mother insisted that her child had boarded the bus to school, transportation section personnel from the school, accompanied by the Qatari police, went in search of the driver, who had parked the 15-seater bus out in the sun before going to sleep. Sarah was rushed to the hospital where she was declared “brought dead.” The bus driver was put behind bars.
Three weeks later, on June 13, Saudi Arabia was rocked by a similar and equally horrific tragedy when a five-year-old girl, Fida Haris, was left unattended for five hours in a school bus in the full glare of the sun outside the International Indian School in Dammam’s Al-Raka district.
Like Sarah, Fida too had started attending the school only two months ago. School officials said the driver forgot to ensure she came off the 15-seater minibus when he dropped off other children at the school in the morning. Ostensibly the child dozed off and remained inside the minibus, which had tinted windows.
On a day when the mercury reached 50 degrees Celsius, Fida apparently suffocated inside the minibus. “Her body had turned pale because of a lack of oxygen and the intensity of the heat,” said her class teacher Gita Radhakrishnan. “It was a horrible sight.”
As was the routine, the driver of the school bus picked up the child and a dozen other children from their homes in downtown Dammam between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. He then dropped some of the children off at the school’s girls section and brought the boys and kindergarten children to the school’s main building. It was here that he forgot to take Fida off. All the other children got off and went to their classes. The driver assumed Fida also went to her KG-2 section.
As is the practice in Dammam, the 2,000-odd Indian school bus drivers park their vehicles near the school itself and then travel back together in their friends' smaller vehicles returning later when it is time to transport the children home. Fida was left in a parked minibus near the school's deserted side gates. The Indian school, which has 16,000 students, is located in a sparsely populated area of Al-Raka district. The building has multiple entrances, but once the children arrive, only the main gate remains open. If a child cried for help in a bus near the side gates, there would be little chance of anybody noticing.
“A five-year-old is capable of knocking on the van doors. She must have done that but there was nobody to hear her cries nor was there anybody to notice the struggle for life inside the minibus,” explained Fida’s class teacher.
The driver, Naushad from Kerala, returned with the other drivers at 12 noon to pick up the kindergarten children. He realized what had happened only when he unlocked the van’s doors. He panicked and called one of his driver friends, Satish Chandran, and explained what had happened.
Satish found the lifeless child in her red-and-white uniform and called in the senior teacher. She immediately identified her as Fida. “It came as a shock to me. In the class register she was listed as absent that day,” said Radhakrishnan. They took Fida to the school’s first-aid room and later transported her to the nearby hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival. The driver was arrested and put behind bars.
Fida’s grief-stricken parents, Muhammad Haris and Sajana Haris, also from Kerala, were consoled by school officials, teachers and members of the large Saudi Indian community.
For Indians with children at the school, the tragedies were far too close to home.
“The first thing I did after hearing the news was to hold my four-year-old daughter tightly and cry out loud. In my mind’s eye I was trying to imagine the situation little Fida and Sarah were in. Little angels -- they must have tried so hard to escape that situation. There was nobody to listen to them. What a painful death it must have been,” said Sameena Sajid, whose two daughters are enrolled at the same Indian school in Dammam. “My children refused to say anything or eat anything after they came back from school. They are in shock.”
For Indian business executive Yunus Raheem coming to terms with the tragedy is well nigh impossible. “Wherever you go and whoever you talk to, at home, at work, people are only talking about Sarah and Fida. They keep asking the same questions again and again, ‘What must it have been like for them inside the locked-up school buses? What must they have endured as they tried to get out of the hell they were in? What did they experience in those terrible hours leading up to their deaths?’”